Business / Economy

Japan could face year-long slump if 'cursed' Olympics canceled

by Yoshiaki Nohara and Yuko Takeo

Bloomberg

A canceled or postponed Olympics would likely result in Japan’s economy shrinking for the longest stretch since the global financial crisis, according to some economists.

Ahead of the arrival of the still-flickering Olympic flame on Friday, economists contacted by Bloomberg said a scrapped or delayed Tokyo Games would probably mean the economy shrinking for a fourth quarter straight.

“I think it’s almost certain that the economy will contract in the first and second quarters. So now the question for everyone is whether it also shrinks in the July-September quarter,” Nomura Research Institute economist Takahide Kiuchi said.

The gloomy view of Kiuchi and other economists is the latest indication of how quickly Japan’s Olympic year has transformed from an opportunity to showcase its attractions as a top tourist destination for 40 million visitors, to a year revealing the fragility of its economy and its dependence on global growth.

The world’s third-largest economy shrank at an annualized pace of 7.1 percent in the last three months of 2019 after a sales tax hike and a typhoon walloped consumption and disrupted production. That put the economy in a highly vulnerable state as the coronavirus started spreading around the world.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration and the International Olympic Committee have tried to damp down growing speculation that the games won’t be held as scheduled as lockdowns of cities across the world cast doubt on the ability of athletes and visitors to attend the sports spectacle.

Finance Minister Taro Aso on Wednesday characterized 2020 as another “cursed” year, citing the war-canceled 1940 Olympics and the boycotted Moscow Olympics in 1980 as examples. “There’s been a problem every 40 years. That’s a fact,” he said in the Diet.

For former Bank of Japan board member Kiuchi, the main scenario is for no games in 2020 and a yearlong sequence of quarterly contractions through September.

BNP Paribas economist Ryutaro Kono shares a similar outlook.

“There’s a very good chance that the Olympics will be scrapped,” Kono said. He expects the economy to contract 2.6 percent this year, compared with his original view of a modest expansion of about 0.5 percent. A Bloomberg survey of economists published March 12 predicts a 0.5 percent contraction.

To some extent Japan’s economy has already enjoyed some of the main material benefits of Olympics-related development and investment, such as the brand new National Stadium. A delay or canceling would deprive it of a hoped-for swell in sentiment, consumption and tourism this year.

The staging of a successful games would also have enhanced Japan’s “soft power.” In 2017, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimated the positive economic impact of the Olympics would total ¥32 trillion through 2030 from 2013, when Tokyo won the bid by pitching a “compact” games.

“The Olympics has a largely symbolic meaning. The cancellation by itself will only shave 0.1 to 0.2 percentage point off GDP, but the situation where we can’t hold the Olympics would mean that Japan is continuing to grapple with the virus, and that other nations including the U.S. and Europe are in a deep slump,” Kono said.

Economists including Yuichi Kodama at Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance and Junichi Makino, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. and Shuji Tonouchi at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley flagged the difficulty of forming an opinion that wasn’t subject to change with the rapid news flow.

“The short-term impact for Japan is going to be worse than for the global financial crisis. But the thing is that each time I change my outlook, the situation worsens further,” Kodama said.

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